1 Corinthians 7:32-35
"Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God,
or see this great fire any more, lest I die."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
What a remarkable sentence: "Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God again!" But what is more remarkable is God's reply: "You have spoken well. And you shall not see my Face again!" Do we not recognize this tone? The seriousness of the subject? The relationship-changing tenor of the words being spoken?
We do well to remember that we are hearing this at second-hand. Yes, these family stories are being dutifully reported to us, who are the descendents of our spiritual (or literal) ancestors, so we may be sure that the curtains of charity will be drawn, and we must read between the lines. But is this not the overheard tone of a lovers' quarrel ... or even the final words of a marriage that could lead to divorce? It is all too easy for us to forget that our life in God's sight is a relationship, the most intimate relationship of our lives. And all the things belonging to relationship belong here. In other words, these are family matters, the most grave and private family matters.
Do you know the brief sentence, "Familiarity breeds contempt"? I suppose it belongs to that vast storehouse of sayings we might call "pop psychology through the ages," for surely it must be as old as humanity itself and is plentifully attested in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is not a quickly understood phrase such as, "a stitch in time sames nine" or "a penny saved is a penny earned." Children do not understand it at all. Rather, it calls on a certain part of the adult sensibility, but not a wholesome or charitable part. Reflecting upon it — on what it means, not what is says — could fill a three-day retreat of meditations.
Some adults will justify it by propping it up with other ancient folk sayings: "the truth will out" or "everyone shows his true colors in time." The insight here (if we may call it insight) is that, at bottom, all humans are mean or low, and no one can hide the fact of this universal truth. Indeed, you might say that this is the insight that underlies all Protestant theology, a pebble, upon which Jean Calvin and Martin Luther built cities of dark castles. We are helpless in our wretchedness, they and their followers will day. And there is nothing we can do about it. Jumping down from theology to our practical lives, we might hear, "Yes, she seems wonderful at first, but in time you'll discover the truth." Or, "He seems like a nice enough man, but you know what men are." And these phrases we see refracted the dimming rays of disappointed life .... and, more important, we hear the death notice of a life that no longer wishes to continue. For to divorce oneself from the goodness that surrounds us is to consign oneself to eternal death, which is Hell.
A central and core belief that ungirds this dark worldview is that humans are essentially evil and that the world is essentially bad. Once you get to know either, you will see it for yourself. Which is to say, becoming familiar with either will inevitably arouse your justified contempt. To say it from a different direction, contempt is a kind of informal proof of the existence of evil. But this is patently untrue, for the sentence "familiarity breeds contempt" is regularly applied throughout the Scriptures to the only one Who is good, Which is Father God, and is commonly practiced and directed against His Son, Jesus Christ.
In our Psalm reading this morning, we are reminded of a landmark in our spiritual heritage: when God's people tested Him at Mirabah. We know the scene well enough. God has brought His people into the wilderness where they might, miraculously, be alone with Him in sublime union. Astonishingly, He has revealed Himself to them. Supernaturally, He has shown them His ways, even etching them in stone. In graphic intimacy, He abridges the laws of nature parting the Red Sea and stopping the Sun's path through the sky. Yet, all these mind-bending acts, designed to bring His people into His own bosom, only serve to lower His esteem in their eyes. And they behave like insolent teenagers who, unaccountably, have been brought by their parents on an involuntary family vacation. They grumble against Him though He is literally their deliverance out of bondage, their salvation, and their life. Yet, they have contempt for Him .... for God! No, it is not necessarily something low in the object of contempt that brings about this commonly seen syndrome; more often, it begins in the imagination and attitudes of the mind that is inclined toward contempt.
Have you heard the trenchant joke, "I would not belong to any club that would have me for a member"? To say it with many more words, humans esteem most highly those clubs and associations whose standards are impossibly high, far beyond themselves. Or consider the man who is only fixed upon the woman who he perceives is out of reach. Should she return that affection, "Well! She's not who I thought she was!" And join a club that offers one membership?! Who would want to belong to so common a fellowship as that? And we recall that the Son of God came in for general contempt among Galileans only because He was there familiar and fellow: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?!" (Mark 6:3). And here we are privy to a double-insult: not only a common tradesman (that is, no wisdom figure) but also a man who is not fit to be called by his father's name, which perhaps exceeds all possible Jewish insults ... for everyman, Simon bar Jonah, was known as his father's son ... and a filthy implication directed as the Mother of God.
As we listen to our Gospel reading this morning, several intriguing details emerge. First, an unclean spirit appears ... "immediately" we are told. Of course, this unclean spirit has been present all along. Indeed, the number of lives firmly under the governance of the Evil One are legion in the Gospels and must be taken to be a ground of being during the first decades of the first-century. But the presence of Absolute Holiness stirs it to speak, as if out affliction and pain: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are, the Holy One of God." This contempt for God is constantly present among the fallen angels, or demons as they are also called on earth, for the loss of Heaven is never far from their dark and grieving minds.
Among the people .... yes, they are "astonished" at His authoritative teachings. Yet, it will not take long for them also to heap contempt on Him precisely because He teaches as One having with authority.
Do you see that if God had remained at a distance, contempt would never have pertained to Him. If God had remained impossibly aloof, superior, impassive in His serenity, then contempt and insolence would never have been His sad lot. But it is the love of God, the self-sacrificing gift of the Father and Mother to their children, which is the basis for all contempt heaped upon their familiarity ... or love. For love has a purpose. It is not a passive or random or aimless thing. For it always carries with it hopes and aspirations attached to the object of love. Real love is never uncomplicated. In our Epistle reading this morning, St. Paul speaks about consecrated life serving God as being interchangeable with life of two married people serving each other. The tone and content are the same in both cases:
The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord;
but the married man is anxious about ... how to please his wife, ... And the unmarried woman
or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit;
but the married woman is anxious about ... how to please her husband.
An article in the magazine, Psychology Today, recently caught my eye:
When we honor one another we're not likely to experience contempt. The disdain comes
from not getting our needs met. It originates from a turning away from your partner
and a relationship philosophy that more likely resembles a "me first" attitude. Contempt
is the emotional reaction to not feeling cared for and perhaps disrespected.
Well, might we, then, give thanks for the love we received from the God who loves us. It turns out, that each time we genuflect, each time we speak from our heart to Him in prayer, each time we bow our heads at the mention of His Name, each time we confess our regrets to Him, each time we think of all the good He has done for us, that all that love ultimately is given, yes, to Him, but also to ourselves, for lives become an atmosphere of love, like a husband and wife who are still solicitous after many, many years. Do you know the song, "To Know Him Is to Love Him"? I suppose our Politically Correct world today would censure the verse, "Just to see him (or her) smile makes my life worthwhile." But isn't this the beating heart of love? Isn't this the very essence and attitude of heart deeply in love? And won't the heart always have this attitude so long as love remains?
God is familiar.
He is the most familiar one,
known naturally to our souls and imaginations from the time we were very young children ...
Who made us,
Who washed us,
Who fed us,
Who guided us on to the end of our days ... and
Who will receive our deaths when our days are done.
You know, He never tires of loving us.
The choice is always whether we will could ever tire of loving Him.
May we never fail to cherish Him every day of our lives.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.